Helping a school become trauma-informed requires more than training school staff about the neuroscience of trauma or providing a prescription of techniques. The heart of trauma-informed care, and our It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma-Informed Movement in Education) program at Beach High School, is relationships.
Effectively helping children who have experienced trauma starts and ends with the relationships between the children and the caring adults in their lives. Being armed with a brain-full of trauma theory and a bag-full of interventions means very little without the ability and willingness to truly view that child’s challenging behaviors and attitudes through a lens of compassion and unconditional acceptance.
Changing hearts, minds, values, and beliefs goes beyond any intellectual understanding. It’s something that must be experienced, both by the child and by the caring adult. The following is an example of what a trauma-informed relationship can look like, capturing what a theory, lecture, or intervention never could: the art of the relationship.
Sixteen year-old Mikey*, adorned head-to-toe (no, seriously, scalp and face too) with shoddy tattoos proudly representing his gang affiliation, is quite an intimidating sight. I would be an enormous hypocrite to judge one’s character based on their having tattoos, since I happen to have many myself. But the judgment comes from his willingness to proudly advertise his gang affiliation on his face and bald head. The tattoos might as well read; “I don’t care about anyone or anything, including myself and my prospective future. Enemy gangs, the police, and society…” Well, you know.
It can be scary interacting with someone carrying that mindset, especially with one so young. Fear-based judgments tend to divert our willingness to embark down the healing path, blinding us to our ability to love unconditionally, to understand the “why” and to seek the wounded inner child.
Where could I start with Mikey? Was he lovable? Did he still have an inner child? The answer to those questions had to start with my understanding of “why”. Why is Mikey the way he is? Here’s what I think. “I don’t care,” Mikey’s proudly displayed mantra, should really be interpreted as “I don’t feel cared for.”
A fundamental principal of developmental neuroscience is that we grow to become a reflection of what we have experienced. Had Mikey ever experienced love, compassion, nurturing, and respect? I was willing to give him these things. But how would he receive them?
According to Play Therapy icon, Garry Landreth, “Play is the child’s language and toys are his words.” Connecting with Mikey’s inner child required my ability to invite him to come out and play. “This ought to be interesting,” I thought to myself skeptically. I brought with me a heavy beach-bag full of hundreds of toy miniatures; animals, people, trees, and vehicles. I dumped the many toys out on a table in the middle of the classroom. Several of the more childlike students meandered over to check out what I had brought.
“What’s this?” they asked in a manner hoping for an invitation. “They’re for you to use. Check ‘em out and select a few that you’d like to play with,” I invited. As I had secretly predicted to myself, most chose either aggressive or protector-themes toys. I made reflective and thematic statements about their play, making the toys come alive; “That one looks powerful”, “The bigger lion is keeping the baby lions safe”, or “OUCH! Help, you’re hurting me!” I could see Mikey still sitting at his computer, occasionally looking over his shoulder towards us, contemplating what on Earth we could possibly be doing. Eventually, he walked over.
“Why did you bring us toys? We’re not little kids,” Mikey asked dismissively, seeming maybe a little offended. “You’re not sure these toys are something you’d like,” I responded, rather than offering him an explanation.
He sat down next to me and began to explore the toys. He picked up a silly-looking chimp holding a banana, turning it over in his hands. Glancing over at me deliberately to get my attention, he put it in his pocket once he knew I was watching.
I engaged. “You need that toy, but the toys aren’t for taking. I’ll keep that toy safe for you and bring it back for you to use next time,” I said in as nurturing a tone as possible. “Nah” he responded, “I’m keeping it.” Let the power-struggle dance begin…or not.
“You must really need that toy, and I trust you’d keep him safe for me, but all the toys have to go back with me. They’re not for taking,” I repeated empathically. He shook his head, dismissing my limit-setting.
I continued playing with the other children, and Mikey continued to explore the other toys. I took some opportunities to make some reflective and thematic statements about Mikey’s toy selections, which were of course themes of violence, pain, and fear.
The time had come for me to leave for the day. I counted down every minute, starting at “Five more minutes and it’ll be time for me to go, but I’ll be back to play next time.” As a hail-Mary, I also made the statement; “Sometimes these toys like to jump into pockets or backpacks. If you find one please let him know that all the other toys miss him very much and need him to come back right away.”
Had I reinforced that stealing from me was okay? No, in my experience, I had not. I resigned myself to the fact that Mikey’s inner child needed to overpower me to feel safe. He needed to test for protection, unsure of what type of adult I was. Was I like all the others, quick to reject him, overpower him, or hurt him? So he took a toy, big deal! He learned that I was going to be understanding, kind, patient, and validating of his emotional needs even when he was acting rather naughty. That’s a price I’ll always pay.
To my amazement, at the very last moment, Mikey innocently retrieved the chimp from his pocket, as his inner child spoke; “Look, you have two of these toys, so I should be able to have one.” In a weird way, I think he was asking for permission. “There are two of them,” I agreed. “I didn’t know that. I appreciate you making sure it was okay. Yes, you may keep that one because I know how much you need it.”
The next day, Mikey’s teacher stopped to inform me of Mikey’s relationship with his toy chimp. She inquired; “Mikey had one of your toy chimps and he insisted you gave it to him, so I just wanted to make sure that was the case.” I confirmed his story as truthful. “Oh, good,” she continued. “He’s been like a little boy with that thing, proudly displaying it on his desk, showing it off as his ‘little-homie’ to all that will listen. ‘The magic guy (I had built rapport by doing some cheesy magic tricks) said I could have it’ Mikey told us.”
The teacher and I agreed that the toy chimp was more than just an object of play. Rather, it served as an extension of ‘the magic guy’ for Mikey’s inner child to connect with when I was not there. The following meetings with Mikey have been different. They’ve consisted of more smiles, laughter, handshakes, silliness, innocence, and sharing of our respective tattoo stories.
My relationship with Mikey epitomizes another of my favorite quotes, this one by Pat O’Brian; “May you love me the most when I deserve it the least because that is when I need it the most.”
I hope I have, Mikey.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.
Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, is a School Based Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center. In this role, Swaringen helps guide children and families toward positive and productive futures through mental health treatment. Swaringen is also leading a trauma-informed pilot program based on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education at a high-risk Long Beach high school. He is passionate about working with school staff to create nurturing environments where all students can thrive. Swaringen earned a Master of Social Work from University of Southern California, and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton.